Singapore’s PSLE: Rewarding right behaviour over results

PSLE. The four-letter acronym that strikes fear into pretty much every primary school student (and their parents) in Singapore.

In two days’ time on November 21st, the results of the 2014 Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will be released by the Ministry of Education.

Image from therealsingapore.com
Image from therealsingapore.com

When children as young as 12 are allocated to schools based on their academic performance in the PSLE, the pressure is on to do well. After all, which kid wants to feel “Normal” against their peers who get streamed into the “Express” course? (yes, those are actual terms)

Talk about dampening a child’s morale from a young age.

So when my sister said the following words, boy was I glad.

“I think it’s important that a child knows their value doesn’t depend on how well they score in their exams. That’s why we brought Ben for a good dinner treat before he sat for his PSLE. That was to reward his diligence and good attitude towards learning – regardless of his final results.”

Such statements are rare in Singapore’s results-centric education system.

And so this short post is a shout-out to applaud positive parenting mindsets like that of my sister and her husband. One that goes against the ingrained notion that results determine how smart a child is, and how successful he/she will grow up to be.

100% for rewarding the right behaviour over results 🙂

Minions, Madness, McDonald’s: Despicable Behaviour?

The first trailer of the Minions 3D animated movie was released yesterday and has since chalked up over 5 million views in 1 day.

Screen shot of video views as of Nov 5th, 2014 | Watch at www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9-FCC6I7u0
Screen shot of video views as of Nov 5th, 2014 | Watch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9-FCC6I7u0

Meanwhile, the Minions movie Facebook page has accumulated over 26 million ‘Likes’.

With months to go before the movie’s release in July 2015, are these early signs of impending Minion mayhem?

Judging by the Minions madness that swept Malaysia last July, I suspect so. Here’s sharing a cultural commentary piece that I wrote in August 2013 to revisit a timely topic.

Enjoy.

(This was published by Megaphone Oz as a featured article at http://megaphoneoz.com/?p=9503)

—–

“Ba-ba-ba-ba-banana!”

“Ba-ba-ba-ba-banana!”

“Po-ta-to-naaaaah…..”

 If you recognise the gibberish above, chances are you’re familiar with the cheerful yellow Minions from hit Hollywood 3D animated movie, Despicable Me 2. You may even be a fan of those jellybean-shaped beings that chatter in comical voices and sing about bananas and potatoes.

Screen shot of Minions singing the 'Banana Potato' song | Watch at www.youtube.com:watch?v=6qsH_LFRr6k&list=PL6xFqsqTknVtjH21pcvDtnYGwKMwJuoal&index=3
Screen shot of Minions singing the ‘Banana Potato’ song | Watch at http://www.youtube.com:watch?v=6qsH_LFRr6k&list=PL6xFqsqTknVtjH21pcvDtnYGwKMwJuoal&index=3

If so, would your fandom propel you to tear through the closed roller shutters of a McDonald’s outlet — just to get your hands on a three-inch plastic toy Minion? Or force up the outlet’s roller shutters halfway, creep underneath it, and make a beeline for the loot?

Alright, maybe not.

It may come as a shock then, that these two scenarios aren’t hypothetical. They are exactly what large crowds of crazed fans in Malaysia did at McDonald’s outlets in Prangin Mall, Penang and Centre Point Mall, Sabah. Before opening hours, hundreds of impatient Minion fans were already queueing up outside the outlets. They eventually grew tired of waiting, and decided to barge through the roller-shutters to be first in line at the counter.

Mad dash under the shutters at Centre Point Mall, Sabah (Screen shot from a video by Anthony Lam)
Mad dash under the shutters at Centre Point Mall, Sabah (Screen shot from a video by Anthony Lam)
Crowd tears through the shutters at Prangin Mall, Penang (Image via Says.com, Photo by Desmond Ooi)
Crowd tears through the shutters at Prangin Mall, Penang (Image via Says.com; Photo by Desmond Ooi)

Welcome to the world of Minion madness in Malaysia.

Across the nation in July 2013, fans hungry for Minions thronged McDonald’s outlets. Queues went on for hours each Thursday as crowds anticipated the release of a new Minion toy at midnight. Lines of hundreds snaking around the outlets were a common sight.

Minion frenzy - Lines snake around a McDonald's outlet in Kulim, Perak (Image via Says.com; Photo by Saimatkong)
Minion frenzy – Lines snake around a McDonald’s outlet in Kulim, Perak (Image via Says.com; Photo by Saimatkong)

At this juncture, I should probably put my hand up and disclose that I am a fan of the Minions. Cute and clumsy, with silly antics and infectious laughter — these little guys grow on you. Yet I was shocked by the videos of the incidents at Prangin Mall and Centre Point Mall. Destruction of commercial property to obtain a plastic toy comes across to me as rather… despicable behaviour.

So what possessed thousands of human beings to behave strangely like Minions, which had an obvious case of herd mentality in the movie?

—–

Clever marketing kickstarted the snowball effect towards Minion madness. One noteworthy marketing tactic by movie distributor Universal Pictures and producers Illumination Entertainment was the release of a series of three Despicable Me 2 movie trailers featuring the Minions. The first teaser-trailer was released in March 2012, 16 months well ahead of the movie premiere on 3rd July 2013. These videos featuring the delightful Minions went viral in an age of social media, particularly so in a Facebook-saturated country like Malaysia. Facebook ranks Malaysia fifth on the list of Asian countries with the most Facebook users. The well-timed release of different trailers on the internet over the course of 16 months built up public anticipation among Malaysians for the hilarious Minions’ return to the big screen.

The strategic pre-movie marketing paid off. Despicable Me 2 was a box office hit in many countries, and set the record for the most successful opening weekend for an animated film in Malaysia. The soil was ripe for the movie’s partnership with McDonald’s to blossom. For the month of July, nine different McDonald’s Happy Meal Minion collectibles were made available in Malaysia, with around two released each week. It was a brilliant tie-in with the fast food giant and marketing powerhouse to promote the movie. The demand for Happy Meal Minions was so high that outlets frequently ran out of stock within hours of release.

McDonald's Malaysia - Happy Meal Minions for Despicable Me 2
McDonald’s Malaysia – Happy Meal Minions for Despicable Me 2

The out-of-stock situations were ironic, considering the abundance of Minions in the movie. Logically, this supply shortage could have been avoided. Considering that manufacturing costs for the three-inch plastic toys would be minimal, producing larger quantities to meet the anticipated demand was possible.

The “supply shortage” however, points to the social psychology principle of Scarcity at work. The Scarcity Principle is based on the notion that people place a higher value on items of limited availability, and the desire to own a scarce item intensifies when there is competition for it. As Robert Cialdini writes in his New York Times bestseller on marketing persuasion, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006), “Perceived scarcity will generate demand. The joy is not in experiencing a scarce commodity but in possessing it.” Essentially, the same frenzy would have been unlikely if Happy Meal Minions were readily available in large quantities. This is telling when we consider that Minion toys at popular toy stores like Toys ‘R’ Us did not sell out, compared to Happy Meal Minions which were “limited”.

The recent Minion madness in Malaysia is but one extreme example of the many Happy Meal collectible crazes through the decades. Happy Meal toys that have incited similar queues in Malaysia (though to a less dramatic extent) include Hello Kitty (2000) and 101 Dalmatians (1997) — with literally 101 Dalmatians to collect. The history of the Happy Meal dates back to 1979 when McDonald’s rolled out the first Happy Meal in the United States, and had its first movie promotional tie-in with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December of the same year.

 —–

Different motivations propelled the Malaysian public’s obsession with Happy Meal Minions. The long queues were typically dominated by college students, 20-something adults and parents. From my observations, I identified three main categories of Minion buyers: True Fans, who bought it for their own collection; Sacrificial Queuers, who bought it for their loved ones; and Trend Opportunists, who bought it to make a quick buck.

Twenty-six-year-old True Fan Ellie Chua told me,

“One Thursday night, I went to four different McDonald’s outlets with some friends. We were looking for the least crowded outlet, which was a challenge since the lines were insane. I persevered in the queue at the last outlet and got my own cute Minion for keeps!”

Twenty-seven-year-old Lynn Foo thinks Minions are adorable, but joined the queues for a different reason. She was one of the many Sacrificial Queuers, who stood in line to get a Minion for a loved one. Lynn says,

“I suppose I was like the parents who were queueing. But instead of buying the hard-to-get Minion toy for a child, it was for a close friend who is a big fan of the Minions.”

Why not just get a Toys “R” Us Minion then? Lynn responds,

“Well, there’s a McDonald’s outlet near my home and the Minions at Toys “R” Us were much more expensive than a Happy Meal. I figured the effort of queueing up to get the elusive Happy Meal Minions would mean as much, if not more, to my friend.”

Trend Opportunists were aplenty in the online space, braving the queues to cash in on the Minion madness. In July 2013, a brief search of eBay found nearly 800 eBay sellers auctioning off the plastic toys to desperate buyers. A further check on popular Malaysian online trading website, mudah.my, showed listings of a set of three Happy Meal Minions for MYR1000 (AUD330). A handsome profit, considering that the price of one Happy Meal is below MYR10 (AUD3.30). With different stories of high resale value over the weeks, mass media played a role in populating the number of Trend Opportunists. The spike in the number of people buying extra Minions for resale led McDonald’s to limit each customer to four Minions per transaction.

—–

After getting their prized Minion in the iconic box with the M-shaped handle, did most Malaysians actually consume the accompanying Happy Meal? Unfortunately not. People were photographed disposing of their Happy Meals after getting their hands on the toys. The large quantities of wasted food was shocking.

Thankfully, every cloud has a silver lining (yes, even a giant cloud of Minion-mad Malaysians). A group of young advertising agency colleagues in capital city Kuala Lumpur decided to take action to address the problem. While discussing the craze and the amount of wasted Happy Meals, the group at Creative Juice was struck by a sense of guilt. Creative director VJ Anand explains,

“That was when we came up with the idea to donate the unwanted meals to those in need of food.”

The Happiest Meal campaign (Image from The Star Online)
The Happiest Meal campaign (Image from The Star Online)

The group of 12 started a campaign called “The Happiest Meal”, and created a Facebook page of the same name to raise awareness. They began the first collection drive on a Thursday at three different McDonald’s outlets around Kuala Lumpur and collected 170 Happy Meals. They donated the meals to a soup kitchen and an orphanage, and also handed them out to the homeless and hungry around Petaling Street and Masjid India. Their initiative sparked off similar movements in other states, including Johor and Penang.

—–

As I catch a glance of smiley googled-eyed “Dave Gadget Grabber” on my bookshelf (a gift from a friend who knew of my soft spot for Minions), I suspect that Minion madness will make a return.

Dave Gadget Grabber on my bookshelf
Dave Gadget Grabber on my bookshelf

After all, Minions, the spin-off prequel to Despicable Me 2, is set for release in July 2015. It would come as no surprise if Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment were looking towards another partnership with McDonald’s for a series of Minions Happy Meal collectibles.

Did Malaysia wake up from the month-long Minion madness? Will Malaysians reflect on the various despicable episodes and decide to refrain from future hysteria? Or will Minion madness only get worse with a full movie dedicated to the little guys?

Let’s hope for more silver linings if the Minion cloud returns in July 2015.

Sydney: Land of Thai-rribly Punny Restaurants

I’ve almost lost track of the number of thai-mes I’ve come across punny Thai restaurant names in Sydney.

It made me wonder if this phenomenon was in any way linked to the national animal of Thailand…

The Ele-pun

At least one of these guys seems to have found that amusing… (Image from earthwatch.org)
At least one of these guys seems to have found that amusing… (Image from earthwatch.org)

(Ha, ha… ok that was thai-rrible)

So in my attempt to keep track, here’s a list. Presenting the first of 10 puntastic restaurants which may render you speechless…

1.  TONGUE-THAIED

Tongue-Thaied, Marrickville
Tongue-Thaied, Marrickville

2.  TO THAI FOR

To Thai For, Rosebery
To Thai For, Rosebery

3.  THAITANIC

Thaitanic, various locations (Image from Thaitanic's website)
Thaitanic, various locations (Image from Thaitanic’s website)

4.  THAI ME UP

Thai Me Up, Darlinghurst (Image from Tanks A Lot - thanks a lot for capturing this)
Thai Me Up, Darlinghurst (Image from Tanks A Lot – P/S: Thanks a lot for capturing this)

5.  THAI RANOSAURUS

Thai Ranosaurus, Riverwood (Image from MyDelivery)
Thai Ranosaurus, Riverwood (Image from MyDelivery)

6.  THAI FOON

Thai Foon, Darling Harbour (Image from ThaiFoon's website)
Thai Foon, Darling Harbour (Image from ThaiFoon’s website)

7.  THAI RIFFIC

Thai Riffic, various locations
Thai Riffic, various locations

8.  THAITANIUM

ThaiTanium, Naremburn (Image from Tanks A Lot)
ThaiTanium, Naremburn (Image from Tanks A Lot)

9. APPETHAIZING

AppeThaiZing, Darlinghurst (Image from AppeThaiZing's website)
AppeThaiZing, Darlinghurst (Image from AppeThaiZing’s website)

If by now, you’re thai-ed of puns related to Thailand, how about getting away to a different country altogether?

10. THAI ONE

Thai One, Sans Souci (Image from Trip Advisor)
Thai One, Sans Souci (Image from Trip Advisor)

Phew.

You might sense a headache coming on after all that. But don’t you worry – Sydney has a cure for that too. Why don’t you go ahead and book yourself a…

Thairapeutic Massage, Bathurst Street, Sydney CBD
Thairapeutic Massage, Bathurst Street, Sydney CBD

And that’s it folks. Squeezing outta here before this gets any limer… #okthatsreallyit

P/S: If anyone has a clue as to how this punny trend started in Sydney, let me know!

 

Sydney’s Eveleigh Farmers’ Market: Farm, Fresh, Feast!

There are few better ways to wake up one’s (half-asleep) five senses on a Saturday morning, than to treat them all to a feast at Eveleigh Farmers’ Market.

True to form, my stomach’s siren started sounding once my nose caught a whiff of fresh pastries and coffee near the entrance.

Breakfast beckons at Bird Cow Fish
Breakfast beckons at Bird Cow Fish

But that morning, I had to teach my stomach that patience is a virtue. Better things were ahead – like a one-hour guided tour of the market by a food expert. I had the pleasure of meeting the lovely Jane Grover – chef and author of Naked Food – on one of three tours that she held for free on October 25th to celebrate six years of Eveleigh’s existence.

With her years of market-navigating experience, Jane led six of us Eveleigh-first-timers through crowds of shoppers carrying fragrant fresh-cut flowers and tote bags overflowing with organic produce.

Jane Grover on the far right

Over 70 stalls fill the heritage-listed Blacksmiths Workshop space, situated within what used to be the Eveleigh Rail Yards from the 1890s. The faded walls of this former industrial building provide the perfect backdrop to showcase rows of colourful farm-fresh produce.

Gorgeous blooms at Jonima Flowers
Gorgeous blooms at Jonima Flowers

There’s something special about meeting the very person who grows the items on your grocery list. Eveleigh is “producers only”, and brings together some of the finest farmers across the states of NSW and ACT into one space. Jane tells the group that the waiting list for a stall in the bustling marketplace currently stands at… (take a guess)

… over 500 applicants.

I think that list should be named The List of Patience.

It’s a good thing that Eveleigh’s popularity is still going strong after six years in taste-shifting Sydney, given that there aren’t many places where city folk can get fruits and veggies that have been picked just two days prior to sale.

Jane shares that Kurrawong Organics harvests their vegetables on Thursday to be sold on Saturday of the same week. In contrast, the harvest-to-sale time for supermarkets could range between two weeks to six months; and a significant amount of produce tends to be frozen before hitting the shelves.

Say hi, fibre! | Hi-fibre goodness at Kurrawong Organics
Say hi, fibre! | Hi-fibre goodness at Kurrawong Organics

Jane explains how this affects the shelf life of produce by comparing the shelf life of freshly-picked mushrooms – like the ones at Margin’s Mushrooms – to most supermarket stock. The difference is stark: 3 to 4 weeks vs. 1 week or less.

Explaining the mushroom's stages of growth
Explaining the mushroom’s stages of growth

We move on in the airy, light-filled space to meet Greg, a chatty cattle farmer from Wingham. At Jane’s request, Greg gives a five-minute snippet of his farming philosophy and caring for his grass-fed, antibiotic-free Hereford cattle. He says “it’s very important for farmers to meet the public to know what they want”.

Greg of Linga Longa Farm, Wingham
Greg of Linga Longa Farm, Wingham

As we stroll along, Jane turns to the group with a smile and says:

“Apart from Greg, the farmers here don’t really talk too much. They’re generally very quiet, humble and hardworking people who just care about growing the best produce… so it’s important for us to express our support.”

Expressing our support came naturally at the next stall. We learnt that the folks at Boomba Boers had driven SEVEN HOURS to the market from their farm in Dorrigo – which essentially meant that they had to be out of bed by the previous night, commence the seven-hour journey, and set up stall before 8am. Wow, and wow again.

Seven hours on the road to deliver premium goat meat
Seven hours on the road to deliver premium goat meat

About mid-way through the tour, we arrived at La Tartine – creator of irresistible organic carbs since 1987. Behold, the time had come to pacify my stomach. And so the tummy chose a delicious nuts-and-raisin sourdough stick for me to munch on, and an olive sourdough loaf for home.

La Tartine's organic sourdough: Soft on the inside, crusty on the outside
La Tartine’s organic sourdough: Soft on the inside, crusty on the outside

Jane continued to introduce us to more inspiring producers from a range of backgrounds. There was dairy, pasta, smoked meats, goats’ cheese, olive oil, alpaca meat… and before we knew it, an hour was up.

IMG_7222IMG_7226IMG_7234

And so Jane left us with these wise words:

“This end, you eat from. That end, you give from.”

By “that end”, she was referring to the other half of the market that housed boutique wine, homemade fudge, dips, chutneys, pressed juices… (you get the idea). And yes, they would make great gifts (both for yourself and others) indeed!

Oh but wait. Also waiting at “that end” was an unexpected surprise – and a beautiful one at that. In the dog-friendly market was a stall devoted to helping the less fortunate of the lot. I had the joy of meeting Missy – a rescued dog who was almost put down by her former owners for having nothing more than a removable lump on her side.

The affectionate Missy, who was rescued by No Kill Pet Rescue
The affectionate Missy, who was rescued by No Kill Pet Rescue

As you can see from the series of candid shots, Missy takes affection to a whole new level. This lady certainly earned the belly rub that she asked for (warning: she’s mastered the lie-down-roll-over-expectant-eyes routine) after treating me to all those snuggles and licks 🙂 Do support the good work of No Kill Pet Rescue by checking out their website and Facebook page to donate, volunteer or foster/adopt a rescue dog!

For a food photographer and stylist’s take on the day, check out my friend’s post here at Miles & Mise en Place.

Eveleigh Farmers’ Market is located at 243 Wilson Street, Darlington. Open every Saturday from 8am-1pm.

The cutting edge of beauty

As the K-Pop phenomenon continues to spread around the globe, the face of the music industry is changing – in an incredibly literal way.

Cosmetic surgery among Korean popstars and personalities is so common that few people would bat an eyelid over it.

Nor a double eyelid at that.

Double eyelid surgery in Seoul (Photo by Jo Yong Hak/Reuters)
Double eyelid surgery in Seoul (Photo by Jo Yong Hak/Reuters)

Double eyelid surgery is the most common cosmetic surgery procedure in South Korea. Overall, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons estimates that one in five South Korean women has undergone some form of cosmetic surgery.

The common motivation? To look that much more like their favourite K-Pop celebrity.

Popular South Korean girl group, Girls' Generation
Popular South Korean girl group, Girls’ Generation

For those who have never considered the plastic path, it may be hard to understand this disturbing trend. Some may even think, leave those who are vain enough to dice and slice their face and body if it so pleases them.

A girl post-surgery. From the 'Beauty Recovery Room' series by artist & photographer, Ji Yeo
A girl post-surgery. From the ‘Beauty Recovery Room’ series by artist & photographer, Ji Yeo

But as with many things in life, empathy for differences develops on a personal level. When you come face-to-face with someone in your world; where what you see as unusual, is considered the norm in their culture.

I met Christina* a month ago. A petite 20-year-old Aussie girl from a Korean background, with long wavy hair, twinkly eyes, and a bright smile.

Recently over lunch, she shared what it felt like growing up around her Korean friends and relatives in Sydney. And that bright smile faded away.

“It’s normal for friends – yes, friends – to frequently say to each other, ‘Oh, you should get some work done. You’ll look prettier that way.’

“And it’s very normal to have relatives tell you that you’re fat and need to lose weight.

“When I lost weight, people would ask me what weight I was – and then tell me to stay at that weight to look good. I started dieting since the age of 11.”

Tears started to roll down her cheeks.

I asked if she felt like she could speak up against such mean remarks. How could it be acceptable for people to say such things, much less to a friend or relative?

“It’s considered normal in my culture. If you seem offended, people would ask what’s wrong with you.”

It got me thinking.

Just because something is common, doesn’t make it normal.

It isn’t normal to look in the mirror and wish you looked prettier – all the time. It isn’t normal to tell others they aren’t beautiful – but they could be if they got some help from a plastic surgeon.

Most of all, it isn’t healthy.

But it’s really hard to truly believe that you’re beautiful as you are, if your voice within is outnumbered by the mass of toxic voices that tell you otherwise.

It’s heartwrenching.

It’s heartwrenching to think girls would make permanent changes to what they were born with, from the pressure of wanting to look ‘prettier’. From wanting to look more like the hottest stars in K-Pop.

Another girl post-surgery. From the 'Beauty Recovery Room' series by artist & photographer, Ji Yeo
Another girl post-surgery. From the ‘Beauty Recovery Room’ series by artist & photographer, Ji Yeo

If fame defines beauty, how many alterations would girls have to make to keep up?

Just as fashion rolls in cycles, beauty trends come and go.

Double eyelids may be all the rage in cosmetic surgery now, but consider this. Look at the international runways and you’ll notice that the ‘single eyelids look’ is increasingly vogue on the catwalk.

Hye-rim Park walks the runway for Max Azria
Hye-rim Park walks the runway for Max Azria

Will a reverse procedure then be the new norm?

How ironic that would be.

So let’s stop looking at cookie-cutter ideas of beauty that pop culture feeds us, and celebrate beauty in all its assorted shapes and sizes instead.

That makes life so much more interesting, liberating and secure – compared to life as another pretty cookie from the plastic jar.

P/S: To all the women reading this, you are beautiful.

Be the voice that reminds the women in your life that they are too.

* Name changed for the purpose of privacy. Thank you for sharing your story, Christina. You’re beautiful – remember that 🙂

The need for good news in the media

A few months ago, I had the privilege of doing my postgraduate internships with Nine News and SBS Dateline.

Conducting vox pops for Nine News in Sydney

Friends would ask about my experience in the newsroom. After a number of different conversations, I started to notice a pattern.

Me: “It’s incredible how much work goes into what looks like a simple 2-minute news story on Nine. And it’s a whole other level of planning at Dateline for their 20-minute reports on international current affairs.”

Friend: “It’s great that you got to see all that in action. But frankly… I don’t watch the news. It’s just too negative and depressing.

Sadly, I didn’t even have to ask them why. Across the world, television news programs follow a predictable format. They go something like this.

Worst news, bad news, commercial break. More bad news, sports, finance, weather. And maybe a ‘feel good’ piece to lighten things up.

So, newsrooms churn out bad news everyday because the industry believes that bad news sells. But people are tired of being bombarded with bad news and switching off.

It doesn’t take much to spot the irony.

Perhaps then, it’s time for the media to pay more attention to good news.

And by good news, I don’t just mean more aww-inducing pictures of cute puppies.

Screen capture from HuffPost Good News, Oct 13th 2014
Screen capture from HuffPost Good News, Oct 13th 2014

(Awww-right. Let’s leave some room for that cuteness)

While that’s good, I believe good news should be (and can be) more than that.

It was this belief that led me to conduct some research into the idea of good news as part of my Master’s degree at The University of Sydney.

I thought I would share a few points from my research – as well as the full essay for those who are interested – in the hope that this will contribute to a cause I believe in.

1) Let’s pay more attention to what’s going right around us.

Discovery of new cures. Justice. Acts of kindness. Rescues. Unsung heroes. Love. Innovative solutions to problems in the world.

Good news happens everyday. But we’ve gotten so used to bad news filling the headlines, that it somehow seems unnatural or trivial to give more airtime to positive developments.

2) A focus on good news does not suggest that harsh realities be downplayed as the public has the right to be informed.

Instead, the concept of  ‘good news’ should be extended to involve a constructive treatment of ‘bad news’. One way of doing this is by placing incidents in their proper context.

Numerous studies have revealed how audiences perceive crime as more rampant than ever in their community due to excessive reporting of an isolated incident. This sensationalised the sense of crime in spite of declining crime rates.

3) There is value in reporting good news, even/especially when it comes to the political realm.

Journalists are taught the importance of being the public’s ‘watchdog’ in reporting on politics and public affairs. This is crucial to keep those in power accountable, but there is a danger of the media compromising its watchdog role by sensationalising the personal scandals or fumbles of politicians. We see this every other day in the news.

On the flipside, instances where public policy has performed well are rarely acknowledged.

It is unsurprising then, that research has found that the media’s overemphasis on negativity and sensationalism has contributed to a breakdown in trust towards politicians and the media. The domino effect of that? A disinterest in politics and the news.

Just look around you and see how many people pay attention to what’s going on in politics.

But the good news is… good news may turn things around. Audience research conducted in the United States found that news about a successful policy report actually drew more interest than a failed one – pointing towards the value of (and desire for) good news in a climate of negativity.

4) It was heartening to discover alternative media outlets that have successfully embarked on good news reporting.

In my essay, I take a closer look at two pioneers in the alternative media space of good news journalism – the Good News Network and Positive News. I also look at how some mainstream media outlets like the Huffington Post and The Guardian have dabbled with the concept of good news.

– Full essay below –

Note: Media academics, students and professionals may find the essay most relevant. But if you are curious about the stuff of media research, read on too!

If you have further thoughts or would like to collaborate on bringing more good news, I’d love to hear from you 🙂


RESEARCH ESSAY

Victoria Ong | June 2014

Alternative news sites are creating innovative new forms of journalism for the promotion of “good news” beyond traditional news values. Is good news significant to society, and to what extent does the form of good news reporting by alternative news sites challenge the dominant paradigm of news reporting?

Introduction

The concept of news values in journalism can be traced to the seminal work of Galtung and Ruge (1965), where the authors identified 12 factors or values that are vital in the selection of news stories. Their list of what is considered “newsworthy” is still referred to as a foundation in many journalism textbooks today.[1] Of particular interest to this essay is Galtung and Ruge’s news value of “Reference to something negative” – where bad events are considered to be “generally unambiguous and newsworthy” (O’Neill and Harcup, 2009, p.165). This traditional news value lies behind the saying that “bad news sells”, and persists as the dominant paradigm in newsrooms today.

This essay will discuss an emergence of attempts among some media academics and practitioners to rethink news values to incorporate “good news”, in a bid against the ingrained notion that “bad news sells”. It will explore the concept of good news and its significance, and examine how alternative news sites on the internet have ventured into “innovative new forms of journalism” that promote good news. Finally, it will find that at present, good news reporting by alternative news sites challenges the dominant paradigm to a certain extent – it is significant in meaning, but limited in impact.

Rethinking the Dominant Paradigm of Traditional News Values

O’Neill and Harcup (2009) raise the need to recognise that the construction of news values is in itself “ideologically loaded” (O’Neill and Harcup, 2009, p.169). Harrison (2006) supports this idea, explaining that the concept of what is newsworthy has been “passed down to new generations of journalists through a process of training and socialisation” (Harrison, 2006, p.153). It is in this environment that “Reference to something negative” has become a commonly accepted news value among media practitioners.

Fuller (1996) argues that in selecting what to report, journalists tend to display “fundamental biases” – among which include the tendency to select news that “accentuates the negative” (Fuller, 1996, p.7). Golding and Elliot (1979) describe how “bad news is good news” for the media, as the drama and shock value of such news items attracts audiences (Golding and Elliot, 1979, p.120). This ties in with Schultz’s (2007) research into newsrooms, which finds the existence of journalistic hierarchies that value “hard news” and bad news over “soft news” and good news. This industry norm is especially obvious in the pattern of newspaper headlines or top stories in television news, which are dominated by hard news and bad events (Schultz, 2007, p.195). This “taken-for-granted” sense of newsworthiness towards hard news/bad news points towards what Gramsci (1971) describes as hegemonic ideology in action (Bailey et al, 2008, p.16).

Beyond the newsroom, a similar “dominant paradigm” of bad news being accepted as the norm of reporting appears to be present in journalism academia. Although numerous media scholars denounce the sensationalism of bad news to attract more audiences (Altheide, 2002; Fuller, 1996; Grabe et al., 2001; Patterson, 2000; Slattery, 1994), considerably little research has concerned itself with rethinking hegemonic news values, and to explore the possibility of incorporating more good news as a counter-balance. Research that specifically examines this issue dates back to 1987, where Galician and Pasternack (1987) questioned if there was an ethical obligation for journalists to balance good news and bad news in their reporting. More recently, O’Neill and Harcup (2001) proposed that “a new set of news values” should be considered. In their list of 10 news values, they include “Good News” as well as “Bad News” – suggesting that while bad news can be considered newsworthy, it is important to recognise and report good news. They define “Good News” as “stories with particularly positive overtones, such as rescues and cures” (O’Neill and Harcup, 2001, p.279).

The Significance of “Good News” as a News Value

The significance of paying more attention to good news as a news value has to be explored for it to make sense in a culture where mainstream media outlets and audiences have come to expect news reports to be made up of bad news. Contrary to the saying that “bad news sells”, studies into audience attitudes towards the news have found that an excessive focus on bad news causes audience fatigue – leading people to switch off from the news. For example, Patterson’s (2000) research on public affairs reporting in the United States and its effect on audiences found that the media’s overemphasis on negativity and sensationalism led to a breakdown in trust towards politicians and the media, and a resultant disinterest in politics and the news. Surveys on media audience attitudes by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press likewise revealed that Americans were tired of political news as it was “too negative, too sensational, and too intrusive” (Patterson, 2000, p.12).

While the news media’s “watchdog” role in public affairs reporting is crucial to keep those in power accountable, Patterson (2000) and Fuller (1996) suggest that the American media compromises its watchdog role through frequently sensationalising the personal wrongdoings and scandals of politicians, while rarely acknowledging public policy that has performed well. By so doing, audiences’ “expectations of public officials decline and its trust in the media’s judgment diminishes” (Patterson, 2000, p.14). An interesting finding emerged from Patterson’s media audience research, where news about a successful policy report actually drew more interest than a failed one – pointing towards the value of and desire for good news in a climate of negativity (Patterson, 2000, p.12).

News has the power to construct and reconstruct social reality (Tuchman, 1973), highlighting the influence that journalists have in shaping public perceptions towards the world. Hence, by equating bad news stories of “conflict, violence, and misfortune with importance, reporters often present a negatively distorted view of reality” (Galician and Pasternack, 1987, p.82). Galician and Pasternack (1987) describe how “research has suggested that negative news can cause individuals to become depressed, to lower their perception of a community’s benevolence, and to experience a sense of helplessness” (Galician and Pasternack, 1987, p.83). Supporting Galician and Pasternack’s findings are numerous studies on how audiences perceive that crime is rampant in their community despite declining crime rates, due to news media that exacerbates a sense of crime through excessive reporting (Gerbner and Gross, 1976; Heath and Gilbert, 1996; Leger, 2003; O’Keefe and Reid-Nash, 1987).

As such, good news is a significant news value that merits more attention as it advances the public interest – a key tenet of journalism – in its ability to bring a well-balanced worldview. While this essay proposes that good news should be given more merit as a news value, it does not suggest that bad news be eliminated as the public has the right to be informed. What is does propose however, is for journalists to adopt a constructive approach towards the reporting of bad news. A constructive treatment towards bad news places events in their context, in what Haskins (1973) terms the “silver lining” approach. Haskins proposed this as a way to rethink the reporting of bad news, where for example, violence stories are supplemented by factual reports of an improvement in the situation (Galician and Pasternack, 1987, p.83).

“Good News” through Innovative New Forms of Journalism

This essay regards alternative news sites as those that “challenge the status quo” of mainstream news reporting (Pickard, 2007, p.12), which is steeped in the dominant paradigm of news values that prioritises bad news. Through these alternative news sites on the internet, “innovative new forms of journalism” have emerged to promote good news stories. A non-exhaustive list of “good news sites” include: Good News Network; Positive News; DailyGood; The Intelligent Optimist; Gimundo; Finally Good News; Happy News; Good Mood News.[2]

The proliferation of good news sites is telling of a resistance towards the dominance of negative news in mainstream media. It also indicates how the rise of the internet has enabled new forms of engagement by groups that may not have had the financial resources or access required to publish good news in traditional media. These alternative good news sites are significant in their “desire to counter – or subvert – prevailing news values” (O’Neill and Harcup, 2009, p.170). Bailey et al. (2008) argue that alternative news sites are significant in voicing the “ideologies of those under-or misrepresented in the mainstream channels of communication” (Bailey, Cammaerts, and Carpentier, 2008, p.16). In this case, good news is the “ideology” that is under-represented in mainstream media. With over 400,000 “Likes” on the Facebook page of DailyGood (their tagline being “News that Inspires”)[3], there appears to be a significant desire among media audiences for a dose of good news in their media diet.

With their determined focus on good news, these alternative news sites pose a challenge to mainstream media news values. Interestingly, the influence of these alternative good news sites has flowed over into some mainstream news sites. This shall all be discussed in detail in the following sections.

Case Study: Alternative News Sites – Good News Network and Positive News

Good News Network and Positive News are pioneers in the alternative media space of good news sites on the internet. The founders of each site started working on their plans to address the lack of good news in the 1990s, but the idea of reporting exclusively on good news did not take off until 2006 and 2001 respectively – when the combination of internet growth and user-friendly publishing software provided a launching pad for them.

Good News Network is based in the United States, and its content is a mix of original news articles by its team of contributors as well as links to other good news stories around the world. The Good News Network Facebook page has built a strong following with over 200,000 “Likes”.[4]

Founder Geri Weis-Corbley describes her motivation behind starting the site:

This website was created in order to report on outstanding citizen action, innovative solutions to the world’s problems, and to shatter negative stereotypes in the public regarding race, governments, politicians, religion, corporations, Hollywood, public schools, and inner cities. It was also specifically created to be a for-profit business in order to finally prove the founder’s precept that good news actually does sell. Changing broadcasters’ belief about what kind of programming “sells” is critical to getting more positive programming on the air. (Weis-Corbley, 2014)

Seeing as the news site’s business model recently moved from paid subscriptions to free access – enabled by a growth in advertising and donations – Weis-Corbley is on track to proving her belief that “good news actually does sell”.

Positive News is based in the United Kingdom, and describes its aim “to inform, inspire and empower our readers, while helping create a more balanced and constructive media” (Positive News, 2014). The site operates as a not-for-profit, backed by a trust and donations. In addition to the site, Positive News also publishes 25,000 printed newspapers on a quarterly basis to distribute for free in the UK.

Apart from reporting on “positive developments from across the world”, Positive News also provides “solution-focused perspectives on the challenges facing society” (Positive News, 2014) – displaying a constructive approach to negative news, akin to the “silver lining” approach proposed by Haskins (1973).

Both Good News Network and Positive News have ventured into good news that goes beyond the constructs of what mainstream media (and even most alternative good news sites) define as “good news” – typically those falling within traditional “soft news” genres (e.g. human interest, lifestyle, culture). Instead, both sites also report on traditional “hard news” genres (e.g. economics, politics, business) – engaging with issues through a constructive approach. Examples of recent headlines include: “Woman Tackles E-Waste Problem While Giving Jobs to ‘Unhirables’” (Good News Network, 11 March 2014); “Gender parity in politics “possible within a generation”” (Positive News, 10 April 2014).

Influence of the Alternative on the Mainstream: Huffington Post and The Guardian

Bailey et al. (2008) make an astute observation in describing how alternative media’s “rejection of the production values” in mainstream media leads to “a diversity of formats and genres, and creates room in alternative media for experimentation with content and form”. This experimentation tends to create “a breeding ground for innovation, often to be eventually adopted by mainstream media” (Bailey at al., 2008, p.20). The authors’ observation rings true in light of mainstream media outlets adopting good news for their news sites. The Huffington Post and The Guardian are examples of mainstream media outlets that have incorporated “Good News” sections on their websites.[5]

In December 2012, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington launched HuffPost Good News as a new section on the website. She wrote:

I’m delighted to announce the launch of HuffPost Good News, a new section that will shine a much-needed spotlight on what’s inspiring, what’s positive, what’s working – and what’s missing from what most of the media chooses to cover […] The excuse often given by the media is that these stories are ‘what the public wants’. Well, we don’t believe that, and HuffPost Good News will be our answer, and challenge, to that cynicism. (Huffington, 2012)

HuffPost Good News provides a mix of positive human-interest stories and inspirational blog posts from public figures. While they report some original stories, a large amount of content is sourced from partnerships with alternative good news sites like DailyGood, Gimundo, and The Intelligent Optimist – a reflection of how a mainstream news site like Huffington Post is not only influenced by, but is dependent on alternative media.

The Guardian started their good news section as a commercial move in March 2011, launching Good News Guardian in partnership with drinks brand Tropicana. The advertising deal centered on the idea of a “good news online hub dedicated solely to positive news stories” (U Talk Marketing, 2011). The campaign was supposed to run for just a year but has lasted up to this day with Tropicana’s branding still prominent on the site. Likewise, HuffPost Good News is sponsored by insurance provider State Farm. Both cases provide an example that “good news sells”, and may provide food for thought for more mainstream media outlets to consider the appeal of good news to advertisers.

Conclusion: “Good news” reporting currently challenges the dominant paradigm to a limited extent

Currently, good news reporting challenges the dominant paradigm of news values to a limited extent. This essay finds that at present, while good news reporting by alternative news sites is significant in meaning, it is still limited in impact.

The proliferation of alternative good news sites pose a significant challenge in meaning to the dominant paradigm by demonstrating a different approach to news reporting – one that is positive and constructive (e.g. the work of Good News Network and Positive News), instead of negative and critical. However, they have yet to attain the same large-scale audience reach as mainstream media – which limits their impact in generating a greater influence on the dominant paradigm to incorporate good news as a “core” news value.

This is telling in the behaviour of mainstream news sites like the Huffington Post and The Guardian. Although they recognise the significance of good news as a news value by having dedicated “Good News” sections on their websites, the ways in which they structure the sites reveal that they do not regard good news as a priority.

On the landing page of the Huffington Post, “Good News” is not listed as a section on the main menu display bar.[6] To navigate to the “Good News” section requires considerable effort – a click on “All Sections”[7], followed by “News”, and after a considerable scroll to the very end of the “News” list, “Good News” earns a spot below “Weird News”. Similarly, “Good News Guardian” is nowhere to be found on The Guardian’s landing page – appearing only when the search term “Good News” is keyed into the site’s search bar. The absence of good news on each site’s landing page reflects what Fiske terms “strategies of containment” through “compartmentalisation”, where the meaning and impact of good news is controlled and limited (Fiske, 1987, p.287). It also becomes evident that with both sites, the traditional construct of good news being considered “soft news” still applies. For instance, the vast majority of stories on HuffPost Good News involve cute animals, adorable children, and human interest stories with familiar themes of kindness and triumph over adversity. [8]

Nevertheless, the incorporation of good news into mainstream news outlets like Huffington Post and The Guardian marks a positive step towards recognition of good news as a significant news value – which hopefully paves the way for more mainstream media to rethink their selection of news items and present a more constructive and well-balanced view of the world. This will require conscious effort by journalists to look out for good news, rather than routinely gather negative news – as well as a shift in editorial culture to publish and give weight to good news. Indeed, as O’Neill and Harcup usefully suggest, “an alternative approach to news values may operate at the margins of journalism – and indeed, may occupy a marginal position within journalism studies – but that does not mean it has no significance” (O’Neill and Harcup, p.171).

Footnotes

[1]  A useful summary list of Galtung and Ruge’s 12 news values can be found in O’Neill and Harcup, 2009, pp.164-165.

[2] Weblinks: Good News Network (www.goodnewsnetwork.org); Positive News (positivenews.org.uk); DailyGood (www.dailygood.org); The Intelligent Optimist (theoptimist.com); Gimundo (gimundo.com); Finally Good News (finallygoodnews.net); Happy News (www.happynews.com); Good Mood News (www.goodmood-news.com).

[3] Weblink: DailyGood Facebook page (www.facebook.com/dailygood)

[4] Weblink: Good News Network Facebook page (www.facebook.com/thegoodnewsnetwork)

[5] Weblinks: HuffPost Good News (www.huffingtonpost.com/good-news/); Good News Guardian (www.theguardian.com/good-news-guardian).

[6] Listed sections on the landing page are: Politics; Business; Entertainment; Tech; Media; WorldPost; Healthy Living; Comedy; HuffPost Live; All Sections.

[7] Under All Sections: News; Entertainment; Life & Style; Tech & Science; Voices; Local.

[8] Similar “strategies of containment” can be seen in traditional mainstream media, such as television news. The format of television news follows a predictable format that has not changed over decades. As cited in Galican and Pasternack (1987, p.83), studies on television news observe how “more prominent display” was given to bad news with dramatic visuals in the beginning of the newscast and that most content would be “predominantly negative” (Lowry, 1971; Singer, 1970). At the end of the newscast, a piece of “good news” would usually be thrown in as a “feel good” piece after the bombardment of “bad news” (Haskins, 1983) – a format that exists up to this day (Alysen, 2012, p.211) that highlights the separation and deprioritisation of good news in news reporting.

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